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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Kobe Bryant's Tank is not on "E"

Prior to an important game, Coach Bill Parcells once placed a gas can by the locker of one of his older players, thus asking a wordless but not so subtle question: "Do you have anything left in the tank?"

Before this season began it was only logical to speculate about how much Kobe Bryant had left in his tank. In 2010-11, Bryant was very productive and efficient when he was healthy--his per minute averages and his shooting percentages were comparable to the numbers he posted during his 2007-08 MVP campaign--but knee and ankle woes limited his effectiveness during the 2011 playoffs; Bryant is an "old" 33 because he is a 16 year veteran who has logged over 48,000 combined minutes (regular season and postseason), roughly the same number that Michael Jordan had tallied by the time he had transformed from "Air Jordan" to "Floor Jordan" as a 40 year old Washington Wizard. After the Dallas Mavericks swept Bryant's L.A. Lakers, I looked back at what Bryant accomplished from 2008-2010 when he led the Lakers to three straight Finals appearances and concluded that for the declining Lakers to be successful in 2011-12 they would need for Bryant to once again become a scoring machine, something that I considered to be unlikely not because Bryant's skills have declined but because his body seemed to be failing him.

The truncated and compacted 2012 season has only just begun, so there is still reason to question whether Bryant can sustain his current pace but the numbers--not "advanced stats" and not selected numbers taken out of context but simply the meaningful box score numbers--show that he is playing as well as he has played at any time in the past several years. Bryant ranks second in the league in scoring behind only LeBron James and Bryant's points per minute average is the highest it has been since he claimed back to back scoring titles in 2006 and 2007. The torn ligament in his right wrist has wreaked havoc on his three point shot but his overall field goal percentage is slightly above his career norm and his free throw percentage is only slightly below his career norm. Bryant just won the Western Conference Player of the Week award for games played between January 2 and January 8 and he has authored the two best individual scoring performances of the season: 39 points versus Golden State on January 6 and 48 points versus Phoenix on January 10. The Lakers won both of those games and they also beat Houston on January 3 when Bryant racked up 37 points, his third highest scoring total so far (and tied for the fourth highest scoring game in the NBA's young season). Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum's efficiency has plummeted after his much celebrated first ever 20-20 game and Bynum has shot just 12-31 from the field in the past three games while amassing two assists and coughing up 10 turnovers. We can safely discard any notions of the Lakers building their offense around Bynum any time soon.

Bryant's 48 point outburst versus the Suns was not only a vintage performance but, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it is the highest scoring game by an NBA player who has played at least 16 seasons, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 46 point game in 1985-86. Bryant's 324 points through the first 11 games of the season are the third most since 1985 by any player who is at least 33 years old but the two players ahead of him on the list--Bernard King in 1990 and Michael Jordan in 1996--both had logged fewer seasons and fewer minutes than Bryant (though, to be fair, King was the first player to come back from reconstructive ACL surgery to make the All-Star team, so his 1990 productivity is remarkable in its own right considering the full context).

Bryant's impeccable footwork and deadly midrange game force opposing teams to swarm him and this creates easy opportunities for Bynum, Pau Gasol and other Lakers. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Bryant's teammates are not taking full advantage of those opportunities to the extent that they did from 2008-2010, so this season's Lakers look a lot like the 2006 and 2007 squads that needed superhuman efforts from Bryant just to win games (the Lakers are 74-34 in the regular season when Bryant scores at least 40 points, including an 18-9 mark during the 2005-06 season when the Lakers went just 45-37 overall).

The long offseason (and perhaps the well publicized treatment that Bryant received in Germany) seems to have rejuvenated Bryant's legs and enabled him to regain some explosiveness: he once again can drive around defenders and finish with authority at the rim and he also has excellent elevation on his jump shot. It really would be interesting to see what Bryant could do on a nightly basis in this condition if he had a fully healthy wrist. As long as Bryant's wrist does not get worse and Bryant's legs stay healthy he can score enough and create enough open shots for his teammates to get the Lakers into the playoffs but if the Lakers are serious about winning at least one more championship during Bryant's career then they need to pull the trigger on a Bynum for Dwight Howard deal; Howard would be the perfect anchor for Coach Mike Brown's defense and Howard's already impressive field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rate would improve from playing alongside Bryant, much like Gasol's numbers in those categories went up after he joined the Lakers. Bynum is too injury-prone and too raw to be counted on as a championship team's defensive anchor and second offensive option; he ranked just sixth on the Lakers in playoff minutes for both the 2009 and 2010 championship teams, so it is wishful thinking to assume that he can maintain his health and be productive if the Lakers expect him to suddenly not only log heavy minutes but to do so as a key factor at both ends of the court.

The 31 year old Gasol may never completely emerge from the funk that he entered during last season's playoffs; Gasol was a good second option on the 2009 and 2010 championship teams but he seems content to be a third option now and that is not good enough if Bynum is then expected to be the second option. If the Lakers can keep Gasol around as a third option behind Bryant and Howard that would work well but if the Lakers have to ship Gasol out with Bynum to obtain Howard it would be worth it: Howard is a perfect second option for the current Lakers and then the Lakers can build around Howard after Bryant retires.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:55 AM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 11, 2012 10:57:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

You really think Bynum/Pau for Howard and probably Turkoglu is a good deal? I can't help but think that if that happens, the lakers have even a smaller chance at a title. They have to make more moves than that, and probably would try to. I guess in the long run, yea, maybe that's the right thing to do. If you can get Howard, then get him.

But, Kobe's not retiring for another 4-5 years probably, if not more. In 4-5 years, howard will be 30-31, and then he'll be on the downside of his career, and the lakers won't exactly be rebuilding around him. I find it humorous that I've been hearing for 3-4 years now that Kobe only has 2-3 peak elite years left. Every year it's 2-3 more years. Sure, at one point age will catch up to him, but it's ridiculous how much disrespect he gets.

Obviously, the lakers need to get Howard. The one thing they lacked last year was youth and athleticism, and then they get even less athletic this year. It doesn't make sense. Not that Shannon Brown is a great answer to anything, but they didn't have to pay him much more than last year to retain his services, he's super athletic, a decent backup SG, and much better than Kapono or Goudelock. And he could've been a trade chip in a howard deal possibly. Which, if the lakers still had odom, then bynum/odom for howard could be done if the magic are willing to deal, and the lakers could keep Pau for sure.

Kevin Love is 8-35 over the past 2 games, very slightly better than Kobe's 6-28. I wonder how many articles about Love being a detriment to his team coupled with the fact that the wolves should run their offense through beasley or wesley johnson or whoever do you think will appear across the blogosphere? I seriously have seen an article about kobe shooting too much and/or the offense should be run through bynum nearly everyday for several days now. Surprising how little people really understand.

 
At Wednesday, January 11, 2012 2:32:00 PM, Blogger Ozi said...

David, did you read what Kobe said concerning his game? I quote, " not bad for the 7th best player in the league", in response to ESPN's offseason ranking. In Nigeria, "ode", or the word for "goat" is synonymous with "fool" in the harshest tone, and I think that these "writers" and "bloggers" (scam artists) have earned that title. People are truly enamored with the idea that the offense will flow better if it goes through Bynum/Gasol, when neither are capable of consistently creating shots for others and consistently able to handle double teams. It's truly a shame to know that a provocative story outpaces truth and critical analysis in journalism today, especially when literally everyone who reads that hack job writing can clearly see the truth, which is that Kobe Bryant will be the best player on the Lakers this year and in the near future.

 
At Wednesday, January 11, 2012 2:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Obviously, it would be better for the Lakers if they can retain Gasol but even if they have to give up Gasol I still think that it would be worth it to get Howard. Of course the Lakers would probably make more moves but in order to make sure that they have the cap space and flexibility to complete the Howard deal they have to do that deal first.

It is difficult to project how Kobe's career will finish. He has logged a ton of minutes and he cannot play at a top level forever. If Kobe is still playing four or five years from now there is no way that he will be on the All-NBA First Team, so Howard would have to be the team's best player.

If the Lakers don't bring in a younger superstar to build the team around then they will suffer a major drop off, much like what happened to the 1980s Celtics after their Big Three declined and no one was around to replace them (in part because Len Bias and Reggie Lewis died).

Shannon Brown is just an ordinary NBA player, albeit one with exceptional jumping ability. When he was on a team with legit depth (the 2007 and 2008 Cavs) he barely even got on the court. Playing with the Lakers certainly helped his market value to some degree but he is not doing anything special in Phoenix so far (.338 FG%, .269 3pt. FG%, lower points per minute and assists per minute rates than last season) so the Lakers were right to replace him with less expensive players and hopefully (from their perspective) use the saved money to pay Howard without going into luxury tax territory (or at least not going as far into luxury tax territory).

Kapono is a pure shooter, unlike Brown, and the Lakers really need some three point shooters to space the floor.

No one knows how good Goudelock can become but he is younger and cheaper than Brown and potentially has a bigger upside as a scorer off of the bench.

A two game sample size does not mean much but the only great player who supposedly shoots too much (at least according to ESPN and certain "stat gurus") is Kobe Bryant. My recent satirical articles highlighted how ludicrous that is by applying the same "reasoning" to LeBron James and Derrick Rose.

 
At Wednesday, January 11, 2012 2:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ozi:

Yes, I did see that quote. Much like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant uses real (and sometimes imagined) slights to add fuel to his fire.

 
At Thursday, January 12, 2012 1:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to back 40s both wins.Not bad for an old fella!Hope he keeps this up.
Thanks David,

nimble..

 
At Thursday, January 12, 2012 11:51:00 AM, Blogger James Katt said...

Michael Jordan won 3 NBA Championships after becoming 33 years-old.

Kobe Bryant's tank is definitely not empty at 33 years-old. His only limitation is his injuries - which have healed except for his torn wrist ligament, which he has successfully been able to play through. Most importantly, his legs are healthy.

The only thing keeping Kobe from winning more NBA Championships are his teammates. Michael Jordan had fantastic teammates. Kobe Bryant's teammates are not that great past Barnes. Hopefully they will improve.

 
At Thursday, January 12, 2012 3:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

James Katt:

The level that Kobe Bryant is playing at is rare--if not completely unprecedented--for someone who has logged as many minutes as he has. Bryant is a much older 33 than Jordan was because Bryant entered the NBA at a younger age and also played in more playoff games in the early portion of his career.

I have said for some time that Bryant's supporting cast is not as good as many people think that it is--and the current cast is the weakest he has had since the Kwame/Smush era--but I would not nominate Barnes as Bryant's most valuable teammate. Perhaps you meant to call Barnes the team's most valuable bench player? That might be true except for the fact that Barnes has now been moved into the starting lineup.

 
At Thursday, January 12, 2012 8:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharp

Two years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of trading both Bynum and Gasol for Dwight Howard. Right now, not as much. That attitude assumes that Pau Gasol is still playing at an All-NBA level, which I couldn't honestly say at this point in time.

Gasol looks a lot more like the 2011 playoff edition than the one we saw between 2008 and 2010. His offensive attack this year is mostly comprised of spot up mid range shots and contested turnaround jumpers. Not nearly as effective as when he was scoring with his array of low post moves. In fairness, he is injured right now.

Bynum has played well thus far into the 2012 season, but he has major consistency issues on the offensive end. He's having difficulty establishing position in the post, which forces him away from the basket and into lower percentage attempts. He also has a lot of trouble dealing with the double teams that he's started seeing this year.

Either way, I think the Lakers would still be best suited making a move for Howard. It wouldn't necessarily make them better this season, but would give them better pieces for 2013 and onward. Getting a point guard who isn't on the wrong side of 30 also wouldn't hurt.

 
At Friday, January 13, 2012 6:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sharp:

If the Lakers acquire Howard and Bryant stays healthy (other than the already injured wrist) then they have a chance to win the 2012 championship. I don't believe that the Lakers as presently constructed have a good chance to win the 2012 championship unless several teams that are ahead of them suffer injuries to key players (which could happen in this compacted season but counting on other players to get hurt is not really a sound plan).

Bynum is not healthy enough or dependable enough to be the second option on a championship team and Gasol seems to be declining. The Lakers' point guard situation is a mess and their bench is a joke for a contending team; how many guys who log minutes for the Lakers would be in the rotation for teams like OKC, Denver, Portland or Dallas?

Bringing in Howard would hardly make the Lakers a lock to win a title but not bringing in Howard almost certainly makes them a lock to not win a title.

I suspect that Howard will play in the All-Star Game in Orlando as a member of the Magic and then be traded shortly afterward to one of his three chosen destinations: Lakers, Nets or Mavs, whichever one makes the best offer. The Lakers are in the best position to acquire Howard because they can offer Bynum and/or Gasol, a package that the other two teams cannot match.

 

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